I get a lot of calls each month from people whose dogs are growling at them . . . or at the mailman . . . or at their children . . . or at other dogs. Sadly, many of them are convinced this is a "dominance" problem. I think we've developed a tendency to think of "dominance" whenever we hear about a dog growling or biting. That's not only an incorrect assumption, it can have devastating consequences for the treatment of the problem. Although aggression can certainly be related to status, there are a number of other reasons for canine aggression that may alter the methods and approaches for treatment. Here are just a few examples:
Medical causes. Canine aggression can be caused by medical issues. If you're seeing aggression in your dog, you should consult both a trainer and your veterinarian to be sure the root problem is not physical (or has some physical component in addition to a behavioral component).
Fear. I think one of the saddest things to see is a dog that is visibly shaking while growling and snarling at you. This dog is certainly a threat and the behavior needs to be addressed, but this is not a dog that is aggressing because of a "dominance" problem. Treating this case as if it were motivated by dominance can cause the aggression to increase. Sadly, many signals that dogs give are not as blatant as shaking in fear. If the signals of fear a dog is giving off are more subtle, owners may not recognize them. This is where a skilled dog trainer, certified behavior consultant, or behaviorist becomes crucial.
Pain. The typical example of a dog aggressing out of pain is where a dog has some physical problem that may be hidden, such as an ear infection. If a child were to pull on that ear, a bite may occur. Again, this has nothing to do with status or the dog being "mean", it has to do with pain. Remember, dogs can't tell us they're frightened or in pain with words. They have limited tools to communicate this. They can retreat or they can try to tell us with a snarl, growl, snap, or bite. This is one of the reasons that teaching bite inhibition to puppies before the age of 18-20 weeks is so crucial.
Learned behavior. Yes, it is possible to simply "learn" to engage in aggressive behavior. Dogs repeat behaviors that work for them. So, if a dog growls one day when it's not in the mood to be petted and its owner leaves it alone in response to the growl, it will likely repeat that behavior. This dog would learn that growling is an effective tactic for telling people to bug off!
Lack of proper handling and socialization at a young age. I don't think I could ever stress the importance of socialization and training at a young age. Do not wait until your puppy is 16 weeks old to call a trainer. The minute you know you're going to get a puppy, buy Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash and call your local dog trainer to arrange for a space in a good puppy class.
Predatory aggression. Some dogs are more predatory than others. If you're seeing a lot of chasing aggression directed towards quick-moving, usually smaller things (cats, bikes, a child running, smaller dogs), this could be predatory behavior.
Resource guarding. A dog may guard space (like a couch or coveted bed), food and food objects (like bones or rawhides), people (after all, you're the source of all those cookies and soft pillows), or toys. We now know that resource guarding has nothing to do with status or dominance. It is simply competition over resources.
Now, just because I think it's important to understand that there are different causes for aggression and that there is more to aggression than status doesn't mean I am making excuses for the aggression. Aggression in a dog is serious and should be treated accordingly. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you have an aggressive dog:
1 - Aggression generally escalates. If your dog is growling at people now, there is a distinct potential for a bite down the road. Don't wait for this to happen - treat the problem seriously from the outset before it has a chance to worsen and become a more established behavior.
2 - Get professional help from either a dog trainer, dog trainer, certified behavior consultant, or certified behaviorist. For serious cases, you may also wish to consult with a veterinary behaviorist.
3 - Manage the problem appropriately while you work on treatment. For example, if your dog guards its food or bones, only feed your dog in its crate and pick up all food objects when your dog is unsupervised. If your dog is engaging in predatory behavior, do not allow him off leash around young children or smaller animals. If your dog growls and snaps when strangers attempt to pet her, put her in a quiet room with a stuffed Kong before guests arrive.
Written by Cara Shannon, who is the owner and one of the trainers at Buddy's Chance, LLC Austin Dog Training and Daycare. She teaches dog training classes for pet dog owners in Central Austin and consults on problem dog behaviors.